Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Poem for an old Manuscript

Irish poets were the first Europeans to write in the vernacular. A tenth century Irish poem - preserved in UCD manuscript MS A 9 - describes a reunion between old lovers. The poet is now an old man and comes across a dear old lady (Crínoc), who was once his first love. The poem's monastic themes have led some commentators to suggest that the poet is describing either a concubine or a virgo subintroducta, i.e. a nun who lived with a priest, monk, or hermit like a sister or 'spiritual wife' (uxor spiritualis).

Martin McNamara is his work The Psalms in the Early Irish Church challenged this interpretation and offered the plausible suggestion that what this poem is actually describing is an old monk who has come across an old psalter manuscript that he used as novice when he first entered religious training. The Psalms formed the backbone of basic theological education in medieval Irish monasteries and young boys beginning at age seven would often learn how to read and write by copying out for themselves their own personal copy of the 'three fifties' (i.e. the book of Psalms). The Psalms were not only the means of introducing literacy to young novices, they also served as the hymnal for the canonical hours when monks would sing the psalms together. Some Irish monasteries would sing all 150 Psalms each day!

Evidentially this old psalter passed through several later owners before our poet came across it again as an old man.

A Crínoc cubuidh do ceol 
Crínoc, melodious is your song.
Though young no more you are still bashful.
We two grew up together in Niall's northern land,
When we used to sleep together in tranquil slumber.

That was my age when you slept with me,
O peerless lady of pleasant wisdom:
A pure-hearted youth, lovely without a flaw,
A gentle boy of seven sweet years.

We lived in the great world of Banba
Without sullying soul or body,
My flashing eye full of love for you,
Like a poor innocent un-tempted by evil. 

Your just counsel is ever ready, 
Wherever we are we seek it:
To love your penetrating wisdom is better
Than glib discourse with a king.

Since then you have slept with four men after me,
Without folly or falling away:
I know, I hear it on all sides,
You are pure, without sin from man.

At last, after weary wanderings,
You have come to me again,
Darkness of age has settled on your face:
Sinless your life draws near its end.

You are still dear to me, faultless one,
You shall have welcome from me without stint;
You will not let us be drowned in torment:
We will earnestly practice devotion with you.

The lasting world is full of your fame,
Far and wide you have wandered on every track:
If every day we followed your ways,
We should come safe into the presence of dread God. 

You leave an example and a bequest 
To everyone in this world,
You have taught us by your life:
Earnest prayer to God is no fallacy. 

Then may God grant us peace and happiness! 
May the countenance of the King
Shine brightly upon us
When we leave behind us our withered bodies.

Kuno Meyer, Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie, vol. 6 (London: David Nutt, 1912), 266.

Martin McNamara, The Psalms in the Early Irish Church (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 360-361; 394-395.

UCD Franciscan MS A 9 P. 40

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